The Dallas Cowboys are back on the road after enjoying a nice three-game stint at AT&T Stadium. The team is now the leader in the NFC East. In fact, they have a stranglehold on the division as all takes now to win the East is one victory, or an Eagles and Redskins loss, and they have three weeks to get it. Because of that, this weeks game against the Indianapolis Colts has a different feel to it. Fans can take a breath as the outcome of this game isn’t as meaningful as it would’ve been had the Cowboys not taken care of business last week. While fans may feel more relaxed now, don’t tell that to the Cowboys as they continue to maintain a “backs against the wall” mentality. Here are five things to look for as the Cowboys look to keep their winning streak going in Indianapolis.
1. The Eberflus Effect
The first thing that should jump out at us is how good this Colts defense is. Who are these guys? The names won’t sound familiar as they’re a motley group of unknowns, but there is one name Cowboys fans should know all too well - Matt Eberflus.
Efberflus was the Cowboys linebackers/passing game coordinator for the last several years before leaving to be the Colts defensive coordinator. When he left, many fans were upset as they thought the organization let a good coach get away. The Cowboys then brought in Kris Richard and with the defense allowing the second-fewest points in the league, nobody seems to miss Eberflus much.
Despite what the Cowboys are doing on defense, Eberflus is a great defensive coach. Eberflus is adamant about laying down the right type of framework for success.
This man is not running a defense. He’s instilling a culture. It is an obsessive, uncompromising and ultra-demanding culture of hustle, discipline and teamwork. Eberflus will not bend his inflexible rules for anyone. If you’re on the field, you will fall in line. You will buy in. The alternative is, well, there is no alternative.
Eberflus brought with him an intense grading system which assesses demerits, of sorts, to players who do not play with maximum effort. They are known as loafs, and literally every play of every game is graded. Ask players for their feelings of the process and there won’t be many fans. They are all assessed loafs, from sideline-to-sideline tackling machine Darius Leonard to recently sack-happy Denico Autry. If the ball is clear on the opposite side of the field, but players don’t run to the whistle, it’s a loaf.
Most impressive is how Eberflus is getting the most out of the usual suspects from the Colts defense squad.
The Colts are getting more production out of many of the same defenders from last year’s 4-12 team. Of the 11 starters on the field for Sunday’s win over the Texans, seven were with the club last season.
The notion that the defense was overhauled during the offseason isn’t totally unfounded – additions like Leonard, Autry and Tyquan Lewis can’t be overstated – but Eberflus is playing with quite a few recycled players as well.
The Cowboys defense is relentless and swarms to the ball, you can also see that same type of energy with these Colts players and Eberflus is a big reason for that.
#Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus deserves strong consideration for Assistant Coach of the Year. His very young (and only moderately talented) group plays fast, sound football every week.— Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit) December 12, 2018
This Colts defense isn’t to be taken lightly. They will cause problems for the Cowboys offense and Eberflus is a big reason for that.
2. Can they stop Zeke?
Line one for the Cowboys offense is establish the run. Scott Linehan knows it, Eberflus knows it, it’s just a matter of whether or not the Colts can stop it. Indianapolis has a group of aggressive defensive linemen, including Jabaal Sheard (93) and Al-Quadin Muhammad (97) on the edge with Denico Autry (96) and Margus Hunt (92) manning the inside. With Zack Martin out, the Cowboys interior offensive line is going to have a difficult challenge ahead of them with this Colts defense.
And handling the Colts defensive line is just the beginning. Once you allow rookie linebacker Darius Leonard a clean path to the ball carrier, it’s over. So much has been made about the Cowboys star rookie LB Leighton Vander Esch having a great season, but it’s the Colts rookie who is leading the league in tackles despite missing a game due to injury. If you don’t know who no. 53 is already, you will by the end of this game.
Darius Leonard updated stats:— Colts Stats (@INDColtsStats) December 9, 2018
1 interception pic.twitter.com/zuFxwRUNcS
The Colts have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season. Will Zeke put an end to that?
3. Blake & Dalton
They may sound like a new country music duo, but the tandem of Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz worked very well for the Cowboys last week against the Philadelphia Eagles. They combined to catch 10 passes for 93 yards, including several key receptions on third down.
While the Colts defense has allowed a modest 103 yards/game on the ground (ranked 8th) and 242 yards in the air (15th), they are a little soft when it comes to defending the tight end position. Indy has allowed the second-most receptions (81) and the third most yards allowed (949) to tight ends this season. Dak Prescott loves using his tight ends as a security blanket and the Colts defense should provide him plenty of opportunities to do that. If the Cowboys can exploit the soft coverage of the Colts defense, it could help them balance out some of the other problems the defense causes for them.
Both offenses will try to dink and dunk you to death. Both defense will allow themselves to bend in hopes they don’t break. This means that the team that can avoid negative plays (sacks, penalties, and turnovers) and execute long, multi-play drives is going to have the edge. The Colts will attack plenty with their tight end Eric Ebron, who has become a favorite target of Andrew Luck this season.
No player (tight end or wide receiver) has more touchdown catches than Colts TE Eric Ebron this season. pic.twitter.com/XCKAzRW8Ys— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) December 14, 2018
Ebron is on his way to the Pro Bowl, but can the Cowboys committee of tight ends match his production? Don’t be surprised if Jarwin eclipses last week’s career-best game with a new career-best.
4. Lucky number 13
When you think of all the top receivers in the league, names like Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham Jr. come to mind, but Colts T.Y. Hilton is quietly one of the most consistent producers year after year. He had four-straight 1,000+ yard seasons from 2013-2016 and managed 966 yards last season despite not having Luck. And even though he missed a couple games earlier in the year, Hilton is on his way to another 1,000+ yard season.
Hilton can beat you in so many different ways. Similar to Amari Cooper, Hilton is an excellent route-runner and creates space over the middle. With the accuracy of Luck, Hilton doesn’t need that much space to operate and these two can convert plays even when the coverage is pretty tight.
But where Hilton can be extra dangerous is when he goes deep. The Cowboys corners are going to have to stay disciplined. One double-move where they get caught out of position and it’s game over for the defense. Limiting big plays will be the name of the game for both teams and Hilton is the Colts most dangerous weapon. Currently, Hilton is dealing with an ankle injury that has his status for Sunday up in the air.
While T.Y. has big-play ability, there will be another player who wears no. 13 that could be a deep threat as well - Michael Gallup. Twice in as many games, the rookie receiver has gotten loose deep only to have Prescott overthrow him. It’s just a matter of time before these two get synced up and when that happens, touchdowns are coming.
5. Finish the fight
The Cowboys can coast right now and just let themselves slide into the playoffs. They don’t even have to win another game to get in as long as Philadelphia and Washington lose one more game. While the sense of urgency may not be there, it will be curious to see just how ready to play Jason Garrett’s troops are on Sunday. Will this team bring the energy when they know in the back of their minds that the game isn’t so critical? Why is that even important?
Well, it’s important because if this team is going to have success in the postseason, then they need to sustain the mentality of a winner. There is no room for a letdown. This team is building something and they must continue to fight if they are going anywhere this season. Jason Garrett sells this philosophy to us, let’s see if his team can hold serve.
This is also the first time the team can clinch the division by winning their game since 2014. That’s because in 2016, they won the division after the Eagles beat the Giants on Sunday night, meaning the entered their Week 16 game already crowned divisional champs. Coincidentally, the game in which they clinched the division in 2014 just so happened to be against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts where they smoked them 42-7.